Arts for Impact: Beyond the Workshop
Material Presented Feb. 2019 at Iowa State University
“One primo Batman doodle, up for auction to the highest bidder!”
So began our class with students in Jennifer Drinkwater’s “Seeing, Making, Doing: Art + Social Capital” class at Iowa State University. It focuses on guiding students in creating effective community engagement through art, design, and culture. We wanted to talk about planning community engagement experiences and measuring impact, and since we were two theatre artists in a room full of designers, we decided to “when in Rome” and make some visual art.
Andy secretly drew his Batman on a hidden whiteboard before class began, and we played up the reveal. We talked about how many years Andy has been practicing drawing Batman, and even though it was regrettable that it only existed on a whiteboard in their classroom, it was still valuable because Andy loves Batman, and he worked for years to perfect this doodle.
We started the bidding. Honestly, we didn’t think anyone would spend even a hypothetical penny, but these ISU design students showed they were willing to go out on a limb with us and bid to almost a dollar before their professor jumped in to sacrifice her money so students wouldn’t spend theirs.
This led into a discussion about need and purpose: Did anyone ask for this Batman? Who might find this Batman valuable? How could we make it more valuable? While we’re at it, what is value? Is it different than worth? How so?
Students responded that value was different than worth — they saw worth as a monetary estimation, whereas value was a more innate characteristic that expresses importance or usefulness.
The message we wanted to drive home about need/purpose and value/worth was that, in our estimation, civic art must be connected to a purpose and a need matching its intended audience, or it is as valuable as a Batman doodle on a whiteboard. Even the “coolest” projects fall short of impact when this connection is not made.
“Find your nougat”
Andy: My mom would always hesitate to buy us candy. We usually could get her to cave, but it came at the price of... the Twin Bing. A Twin Bing is a candy bar sold by the Palmer Candy Company. It is a cherry nougat covered in a hash of roasted peanuts and chocolate. It was created in 1923 and the Sioux City, Iowa-based company describes the candy as a “Midwestern Favorite!”
The part of the candy I’d like you to focus on is the cherry nougat at the center. It's the best part of a Twin Bing, and everything around it is built to highlight its sweetness. The best indicator of impact in every single project we've undertaken has been “start with your nougat!”
“Start with your nougat”
Think of the “nougat” as your “purpose”— the “desired outcome” for your project. In the most chaotic moments of your process, strive to choose the option that, like roasted peanuts and chocolate, brings out the sweetness at your project’s cherry center. “Mission” is a word more commonly used for the idea of a “nougat.” It is your project’s North Star — the way you vet your community partners, add a new program, decide how to market, or whether to hire an employee. “Does this person/program/idea fit our mission?” In the end, your mission is the standard by which you measure your impact.
We asked students in the workshop to work in their small groups to narrow down and present their class projects’ missions. Here’s one of ours from a previous project:
**Create a model for sustainability and growth through community pride, collaboration, shared experiences, and history, in order to lay a foundation for future, community-driven, endeavors.
It may not always be possible, but a well-crafted mission usually includes need+purpose+value, or the instigator+desired outcome+benefits of a project.
Our first example is the mission of a real project we began about four years ago, but that just got off the ground last year. The need is “a model for sustainability and growth” in our micropolitan community. The purpose is “to lay a foundation for future, community-driven, endeavors,” and the value will be found in “community pride, collaboration, shared experiences, and history.”
Writing and agreeing on a mission can like balancing a chainsaw on your nose while walking across a tightrope, especially in a group. We would suggest that the “nougat,” or the “purpose,” is the most important ingredient. If your team can agree on the purpose (the desired outcome), you’re on your way.
“Blend your nougat within your small team.”
Everyone needs to be on the same page, working toward the same nougat. Eventually, you may sell this project differently to outside groups, but the core group needs to be working toward the same goal.
A good way to practice this cohesion is to play a cooperative board game like Castle Panic or Pandemic or play a theatre game to get people up and moving while working on collaboration and communication. One of our favorites is Chocolate River. You'll practice beginning with the end in mind, defining what you want to accomplish, and how you’re going to measure success/impact (plus, it's way more fun than another lunch meeting).
Explanation: Groups must use their "marshmallows" to cross the Chocolate River. They may only stand on their marshmallows (not drag, surf, etc.), and if a player touches the river, that player must go back to the beginning. The game cannot be completed unless the entire group finishes together -- unlike the Rapture, no one can be left behind.
Chocodile (optional game mechanic) - "Don't leave your marshmallows unguarded. If you aren't touching one with your feet or hands, it will be eaten up by the terrifying Chocodile!" You can be as nice or as "mean" with this mechanic as you'd like.
During the debrief after this activity, ask your group: What worked? What didn’t work? Start to break down responses to address topics like “first things first,” “defining outcomes,” and “beginning with the end in mind.” Why were these ideas necessary in Chocolate River? How does it relate to your nougat, your project timeline, logistics, and budget?
Notice who on your team gravitated toward what roles during the game. Was there a facilitator? A person who asked great questions? Someone who made plans a reality? Our society gravitates toward the idea of an alpha leader who gives orders, but if everyone is giving orders, nothing gets done. A good leader should be able to listen to others ideas and use them to make a decision. Remember that in a parade, someone has to follow the horses.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time with the students at ISU and could have discussed these ideas for many more hours. We hope this review helps you with finding your nougat and using it to answer important questions along the way!